Re­build­ing a con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Tony Blank­ley

Like the Ber­lin­ers of 1945-46 who picked through the rub­ble to sep­a­rate still us­able bricks for re­build­ing from that which was de­stroyed be­yond re­pair, the Repub­li­cans now start the same lam­en­ta­ble process of find­ing some­thing of value in the rub­ble that was their ma­jor­ity. And just as the Ber­lin of to­day is phys­i­cally both sim­i­lar to and dif­fer­ent from the Ber­lin that stood be­fore it was flat­tened dur­ing World War II, so too, the new Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity that some­day will be re­built will be sim­i­lar but not iden­ti­cal to the one that was con­structed in the Ron­ald Rea­ganNewt Gin­grich era.

For both ed­i­fices, the cor­ner­stone was and will be again con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples of gov­er­nance and so­ci­ety. But even the sub­stance of that cor­ner­stone will be hotly fought over — to say noth­ing of how the rest of the build­ing above the cor­ner­stone will be con­structed.

Will it ex­clude “grandiose na­tion-build­ing abroad,” which Ge­orge Will re­cently in­sisted was one of the non-con­ser­va­tive apos­tasies of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion? Will it also ex­clude a firm Mex­i­can border pol­icy and any de­viance from free trade as Michael Barone sug­gested two weeks ago? Will it ex­clude op­po­si­tion to fed­eral fund­ing of em­bry­onic stem-cell re­search, as many U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce lead­ers be­lieve is nec­es­sary to keep the busi­ness-class con­ser­va­tives on board with Repub­li­can con­ser­vatism?

It’s all very well for all of us con­ser­va­tives to re­peat — and be­lieve — the mantra that we strayed from con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples and paid the price. But the in­evitable stresses within the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can gov­ern­ing coali­tion that had held to­gether for a quar­ter of a cen­tury (more or less) un­til the Nov. 7 elec­tion, will be harder to put back to­gether than they were to keep to­gether. (The magic elixir of power to be shared is stronger than the ap­peal of la­bor­ing to­gether in the wilder­ness.)

Na­tional gov­ern­ing par­ties are by def­i­ni­tion coali­tions. There is no fac­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics equal to 51 per­cent of the vote. FDR suc­cess­fully held in his great coali­tion South­ern seg­re­ga­tion­ists and North­ern in­te­gra­tionists — to use the most spec­tac­u­lar ex­am­ple of suc­cess­ful coali­tion man­age­ment. The chal­lenge for con­ser­va­tives is to re­build a gov­ern­ing coali­tion for the next few decades. Let me of­fer just one ex­am­ple of how this coali­tion con­struc­tion job will be marginally dif­fer­ent from the one Newt Gin­grich and Co. had in the 1980s and 1990s.

Two weeks ago, Repub­li­cans lost sev­eral seats held by mod­er­ate and lib­eral Repub­li­cans in New Eng­land and the Mid-At­lantic states, as well as some in the Rocky Moun­tains and South­west. In the ‘90s, the Rock­ies and South­west were grow­ing pop­u­la­tions of re­li­able con­ser­va­tive votes, while the North­east­ern coastal re­gion’s lib­er­al­ism was be­ing awk­wardly but ably held back by en­sconced Repub­li­can mod­er­ate-to-lib­eral in­cum­bents, such as Nancy John­son. How do we pro­pose to win back those North­east­ern seats? Or if we are plan­ning to aban­don the North­east, where do we plan to pick up re­place­ment seats else­where? We may get back and pick up more seats in the Rock­ies and South­west, but clearly be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion from Cal­i­for­nia and Mex­ico into that re­gion, those seats will be more com­pet­i­tive in the 2000s than they were in ‘80s and ‘90s.

How con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans shape and de­scribe their con­ser­vatism may well de­ter­mine whether those seats are re­triev­able or not in the next few elec­tion cy­cles.

I still be­lieve in the wis­dom of Ron­ald Rea­gan in 1975, when he said that we con­ser­va­tives had to avoid pale pas­tels, and de­scribe our prin­ci­ples and pro­grams in bold col­ors. But one of Mr. Rea­gan’s many gifts was the abil­ity to de­scribe au­then­tic con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples in a way that ap­pealed to many moder­ates and even a few lib­er­als. Back then, only about 25 per­cent of the pub­lic were self-de­scribed con­ser­va­tives (with lib­er­als at 25 per­cent to 30 per­cent and moder­ates at ap­prox­i­mately to­day’s 45 per­cent). To­day (and for a cou­ple of decades now) the break­down is ap­prox­i­mately: 20 per­cent lib­eral, 35 per­cent con­ser­va­tive, 45 per­cent mod­er­ate. So our job is eas­ier than Mr. Rea­gan’s was be­cause Mr. Rea­gan be­queathed us about 10 per­cent more con­ser­va­tives and about 10 per­cent fewer lib­er­als than he found when he started his na­tional lead­er­ship. But it is still for­mi­da­ble. And re­mem­ber func­tional pub­lic self-def­i­ni­tions of con­ser­vatism change over time. Back in 1964, Barry Gold­wa­ter and his sup­port­ers op­posed any fed­eral aid to ed­u­ca­tion. To­day, few even rock-ribbed con­ser­va­tives op­pose any fed­eral col­lege tu­ition aid, for ex­am­ple.

This is a very del­i­cate mo­ment for the con­ser­va­tive coali­tion. Over the next sev­eral months (and prob­a­bly years) con­ser­va­tives must do what we usu­ally do very badly, re­strain our­selves from adaman­tine procla­ma­tions of what is or is not be­yond the pale of con­ser­vatism. And while we can al­most all now agree to stop spend­ing like drunken sailors and ear-mark­ing spe­cial ben­e­fits, hav­ing marred our record on this over the last six years, merely re­stat­ing our com­mit­ment will not be nearly enough to re­gain the lost faith­ful.

Par­tic­u­larly for House Repub­li­cans, th­ese and re­lated ques­tions will be of first pri­or­ity as they re­or­ga­nize both their lead­er­ship (I hope af­ter Thanks­giv­ing) and as they de­sign their vi­sions, strate­gies, projects and tac­tics for the next Congress.

Tony Blank­ley is edi­to­rial page ed­i­tor of The Wash­ing­ton Times. He can be reached via e-mail at tblank­ley@wash­ing­ton­

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